Wednesday 21 December 2005

The Paul Quest by: Ben Witherington III

The Paul Quest by Ben Witherington III.

Witherington structured this book into 8 nearly equal chapters dealing with what he sees as the essential elements of a quest for the historical Paul. Along with a very brief introduction and conclusion, he includes a very informative appendix, “Timely remarks on the life of Paul,” which attempts to devise with a timeline for Paul’s life. The eight areas that Witherington considers foundational are as follows: 1) On Constructing an Ancient Personality, 2) The Trinity of Paul’s Identity, 3) Paul the Writer and Rhetor, 4) Paul the Prophet and Apostle, 5) Paul the Realist and Radical, 6) Paul the Anthropologist and Advocate, 7) Paul the Story teller and Exegete, 8) Paul the Ethicist and Theologian.

This book is second in sequence to The Jesus Quest and, in some ways, is also a continuation of Paul’s Narrative thought World. As Witherington states the quest for this historical Jesus, leads us to Paul since he is one of our greatest sources about Jesus. It is, therefore, logical to leave The Jesus Quest and embark on a new search that leads to The Paul Quest. As a result, it has many aims and goals. Those goals are best summed up as follows: a short study on the four sources for Paul, exposing readers to new developments in the quest for the historical Paul, and an examination of Paul’s different roles and how those would have shaped him. Witherington also proposes to sample relevant Pauline literature in each of his eight foundational areas.

I have often heard it asked, “Why another book on Paul?” With the quantity of books published yearly, it appears that no one in the publishing industry is asking the same question. However, I would say this is a book of great value to the large canon of Pauline literature. It is a very good book written in a fun and engaging style. Witherington tends to present a few of the different opinions on each topic and then states his personal view. He uses the Scriptures as his primary starting point, but then supports his views and premises from a historical perspective.

I found it invaluable to have Witherington begin with his study of the ancient personality, specifically in regards to the three aspects of Paul: Paul as Jew, Paul as Christian, and finally, though of lesser import, Paul as Roman citizen. This sets all readers on a level playing field for the rest of the work. Each reader has a very clear view of how Witherington is approaching Paul, why, and where he intends to lead us as we search for the historical Paul.

In presenting his different topics, Witherington draws upon numerous sources that include both modern and ancient. When criticizing an outside source, he does so in a fair way, evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular book or theory. He then goes on to support his opinions with Pauline sources or other contemporaries.

I believe this would be an ideal book for a new student to Pauline studies. It has a strong historical approach. It includes a valid use themes and archetypes; not those of modern psychology, but instead those of the ancient world, Prophet, Storyteller, Jew, Greek, etc. It raises many of the contemporary issues in Pauline theology, as well as those necessary for an understanding of the man himself. It deals with the opposing views in a balanced way, presenting both sides of an argument fairly. For example on women, it presents both views of Paul as liberator and feminist, and Paul as the patriarchal repressor of women.

In Paul’s Narrative Though World (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), Witherington was hard to read and even harder to understand. However, in this effort he is a masterful wordsmith who leaves you hungering for more. It was hard to put the book down; it is such a compelling read. Through its many referenced sources, it also allows you to continue further into any area that piques your interest in an easily accessible way.

The greatest strength of the book is its balanced approach and equal treatment of the different topics and views. I was very impressed that he did not over-focus on the storyteller or “narrative thought world” given his previous writing in this area. The greatest weakness is the last chapter. In my opinion, Witherington does not do a good job of presenting Paul the theologian, or of presenting a clear view of Paul’s theology. It appears that Wirtherington does not wish to tackle this issue, or that he has not come to his own conclusion. The other possibility is that he things that a quest for Paul, or the historical Paul is not the place for this issue. Since he has made such a strong presentation in every other section, I would still say that this is an excellent book which is a good read, and well worth anyone’s time and money to pursue it.

I believe this book achieved its stated aims. Much like a gemologist working with a raw diamond cuts and shapes the stone into a beautiful thing that radiates and reflects light from its many facets, so too has Witherington shown each of the differing views of the separate facets of Paul, and through them brings clarity, light and vision to the reader.

(First written for RS393 Selected Reading’s Paul’s Life and Letters Winter Term 2001)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Steven do you know the book "Jesus' Words Only" by Douglas Del Tondo - it's an eye-opener on Paul.

Best wishes
Jason in Cape Town